SIKESTON -- When a bus full of tourists in town for last week's rodeo and Redneck Barbecue wanted to see more of what Sikeston had to offer, Donnie Beggs said bring 'em on.
So the tourists from Illinois headed to Beggs' family farm north of Sikeston, where they were able to see home grown watermelon and what it takes to raise watermelon -- from growing it in the field to harvesting it and unloading it out of the truck.
"They were asking questions like how to tell if it's ripe, what's the difference between seedless and seed and how do you get that," the farmer recalled. "It was a whole new concept for them.
"And they were amazed by cotton -- they had never seen cotton before. They got some history on the area, and I think they left with a little more awareness of agriculture," Beggs said.
It's examples like this that makes Beggs think more and more people are opening their eyes to agritourism. "This was a busload of people that, without agritourism, never would have known about the agriculture here," Beggs said.
In addition to watermelon, Beggs grows strawberries and pumpkins, and in the fall, he and his wife, Sheila, open their pumpkin patch to the public as well as their 12-acre corn maze.
Beggs is also one of 24 members appointed last October to a new agritourism council -- a joint effort of the Department of Tourism and the Department of Agriculture to push agritourism.
While there's still more work to be done from the council, Beggs said the Department of Tourism is finally seeing that agriculture is a big draw.
"They're saying, 'Let's get people on these farms and provide them with another destination,'" Beggs said. "And especially for a one-day deal."
And the council is finding out people like convenience, Beggs said. Currently the council is trying to package agritourism with other community attractions.
For example, a package could include a day at Beggs Pumpkin Patch, a meal at Lambert's Cafe plus hotel accommodations in Sikeston, Beggs explained.
"It won't be hard for us or them -- and they can make three stops and the economy of Sikeston will benefit," Beggs said. Beggs said the council has discovered it's easier to market agritourism if the doors are open year-round so he's adding a spring festival and a strawberry festival in 2005.
In response to the council's needs and suggestions, the Department of Agriculture's AgriMissouri Program, in partnership with retailers, farmers' markets and agritourism venues, created the "Experience Missouri Agritourism" promotion.
"We're always looking for ways to promote agribusiness and we thought a promotion such as this would get the word out and increase agritourism in Missouri," said Tammy Bruckerhoff, state agritourism team leader.
Winners of the promotion, which will be drawn Oct. 1, will receive a two-night stay at one of three bed and breakfasts or a family of four pass to one of seven agriculture-related tourist destinations.
"Agritourism is a growing trend across the nation, and this promotion is a great opportunity to highlight those agriculture-related vacation destinations Missouri has to offer," said Deanne Hackman, director of the department's Agriculture Business Development Division, in a released statement.
In addition to Beggs Pumpkin Patch, some of the vacation destinations include: a lake resort with a dude ranch flavor in Theodosia; a 72-acre estate complete with a wine garden, hiking trails, river access and a cottage nestled in the Missouri Ozarks; and a 1,100 acre farm set in the heart of the Ozark mountain region that offers tours of its cow/calf and dairy operations and an annual Barnyard Days Festival every October in Neosho.
Overall, more people are definitely coming to the farm, Beggs assured.
"The public is seeing it's there, and it's available now," Beggs said about agritourism. "And agritourism is centered around bringing the family, and that's what's driving the business -- farm family fun."
For contest rules, entry forms and descriptions of Missouri agritourism farmsteads, farmers' markets and events, visit www.agrimissouri.com or call toll-free 1-866-466-8283.